Did Anyone Win The CP3-Russ Trade?

The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the decade set up better than practically any other team in basketball.  They had three young stars in Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden.  Yes, they had the new big three in Miami to deal with, but for the most part, the path to a championship, or championships, seemed quite clear.  The conference was partially in decline.  Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki were still winning, yes, but that wouldn’t continue for 10 more years.  Steve Nash and Tim Duncan were getting up there in age too.  Once those guys moved into their twilight years, the Thunder were going to be the league’s next best team.  With its next best players.

For the most part, the last sentence was correct.

OKC will exit the decade with zero of those three players – Durant, Harden and Westbrook – on their roster.  One they traded away for nothing, one left for nothing because the first one was traded for nothing, and the last, somehow, was traded for much more value than the first two.

Oh, and somehow the two that were traded away ended up on the same team.

Not how OKC planned it.

The Thunder’s trade of Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, the Rockets’ first round picks in 2024 and 2026 (Both are protected 1-4) and the right to swap picks in 2021 and 2025 concludes their big three era, which ended with zero championships and just one NBA Finals appearance, despite all three of those players winning a MVP at some point in the decade.  It will go down as one of the biggest NBA tragedies ever.

Practically nothing will make-up for that.  Despite his promise and potential, it won’t be Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.  It likely won’t be the insane bevy of draft picks they’ve landed from the trades of Paul George and Westbrook.  It won’t be the extra year of Westbrook’s contract that the Thunder shed in return for CP3’s own albatross.

But if you’re evaluating OKC’s moves in a vacuum, in a place where they have an incredibly overvalued, pure travesty of an asset in Westbrook, then it’s really not all that bad.  Sure, the Thunder have to postpone a rebuild for likely three years due to CP3’s deal.  But they got off of a contract that was actually worse.  With Russ, you risk other guys developing bad habits and having their games changed by the way Russ plays.  The Thunder got four first round picks in order to not have that happen.

OKC can, at worst, remain a semi-competitive team until the Paul deal is up while wisely using their draft picks to build for the post-CP3/SGA era.  By then, the Thunder should be back and ready to go.  And they’ll still have three years left of picks rolling in from the Clippers and Rockets.

How good will those picks be?  I covered the Clippers side of that here.  The Rockets picks, however, might be a different story.

Westbrook and Harden might have been the two unlikeliest players of the original OKC trio to end back up together.  With Russ and Durant alone, it was successful for a couple seasons until Durant realized he could have much better and nicer things in life, which included a better basketball situation.  With Harden and Durant alone, you would have been looking at possibly one of the most explosive, efficient and dynamic offensive duos ever.  You want to talk about unstoppable?  What happens when those two run a pick-and-roll?  Or when both of their jumpers are cooking?

With Westbrook and Harden, it’s hard to find common ground.  Both players dominate the basketball; they’re literally the top two players in the league when it comes to how much they have the ball in their hands.  One can’t shoot it from beyond the arc, or shoot it like at all.  The other doesn’t player defense; really neither of them do when the effort is poor.  One is the most selfish player in the league because he wants to be.  The other is one of the most selfish because he has to be.

I’m sure this is going to work out great.

Maybe the sarcasm is me just being mean.  Harden and Westbrook wanted to play together.  They’ll work out the differences.  Right?  Right?!!?

That worked out well.  Now Houston is going to try a player who fits even worse with Harden?

That’s why Houston mortgaging their future picks is a lot riskier than the Clippers mortgaging even more of their’s.  Despite the Clippers’ extending a year extra, and being less protected, the Clippers have younger stars (Kawhi Leonard is barely 28 and Paul George is 29 while Harden is 29 and Westbrook is 30) and a more attractive place to play basketball.  Despite them being the little brother Clippers, it’s still LA.  It didn’t stop Kawhi from going there, and if they have the success they should have with their new superstar duo, then the Clippers won’t be the little brother anymore.

Plus, Westbrook is the type of player who’s likely to age horribly.  He already can’t shoot; that won’t get any better.  His insane, freakish athleticism has already caused him injuries, and as his body breaks down even further, it’ll reduce his availability and defensive impact.  All of that on a massive four year, $170 million contract.

The Rockets dumped CP3 and had to move four first round picks for a worse player, and contract, to pair with Harden.  That feels like complete incompetence, and was the opposite of everything I’ve preached about when it came to Westbrook’s deal: you don’t give up anything of value for it.

But at the same time, doesn’t it feel like Houston maybe got a tad better despite the chemistry concerns and misguided asset management?  Doesn’t the rejuvenation of of part of the original OKC core get you a little excited?  Doesn’t Westbrook make more of an impact than 34-year-old Chris Paul, who seems to be breaking down?

Westbrook brings impact.  He brings oomph.  He brings electricity.  Will it work?  Likely not.  I can’t wait for the reports about the unhappiness of Westbrook in his role a month into the season.  But if you’re Houston, and you just lost to Golden State, a team that was without arguably the best player in the league, in the second (!!!) round of the playoffs, practically anything is worth it at this point.  Were there any real answers?

The Paul George Trade Is A Massive Win-Win

No matter what they did this summer, the Los Angeles Clippers were going to be fine.

If they struck out on the top tier free agents they were connected to all season long, they at least had a good, young team that competed with the Golden State Warriors well enough for me to pick against the defending champions in the second round of the playoffs. And most importantly, they had a budding star and potentially a player whose ceiling was “best player on a really, really good team” in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. They had surrounded him with defensive-minded players like Patrick Beverley, shooters like Landry Shamet and mobile-enough, rim-protecting big men in Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell.

The Clippers were on their way to becoming really good, really fast.

If the Clippers added the star they coveted, then their timeline was accelerated. Accelerated so fast that even with someone like Kawhi Leonard on the roster they possessed, they would have been title contenders due to Kawhi essentially taking care of the missing extra spark SGA hadn’t developed and due to the Western Conference being insanely wide open next season.

Instead, the Clippers went all-in. They got what they wanted and more. They accelerated their timeline even further than we thought they could have possibly done so this offseason. They went from a scrappy, young and fun team to a potential title contender to the absolute favorite in a matter of minutes Friday night.
You can’t look at the Paul George trade from the Clippers perspective as the Paul George trade. You have to look at it as them trading for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. While Kawhi was off leading on the Lakers and getting essentially serenaded in Toronto, the Clippers were exploring ways to get PG. There was a reason Kawhi met with the Clippers first.

Kawhi’s choice of George is interesting. He’s not one of the seven-or-so guys in the league that matter, but he’s one of the league’s top 15 players. He’s essentially the perfect side-kick, or the perfect second-best player on a championship team. George is never going to hog the ball, take bad shots or play selfishly. He’s going to play defense because he’s really good at it. And he’s going to score in volumes when he can.

But he’s never going to be taking, or demanding to take, the last shot of the game unless he’s really hot. And he’s never going to have chemistry issues with Kawhi. Despite the takeovers we saw from Kawhi in the postseason, the two are both incredibly selfless players, who move within an offensive system and can get open off-the-ball. Due to their efficiency, the Clippers have two of the best players in the league who don’t need the ball in their hands to be effective.

And they have a defensive menace to go with it. PG and Kawhi are two of the six best defenders in the league and can switch 1-4 and 1-5, respectively. Patrick Beverley is one of the best defensive point guards in the league, and they have fantastic role players to go around them.  They have three-and-D wings like Rodney McGruder, Mo Harkless and Jerome Robinson, all of whom don’t need to have the ball whatsoever.  They have Landry Shamet, a lights out shooter whose size might  enable him to play at the three spot in certain lineups.  They have Montrezl Harrell, one of the best energy bigs in the league whose athleticism keeps him on the floor late in games.  They have Lou Williams, who was legitimately their closer last season and is now one of like four dudes who could take on that role.  They have Ivica Zubac, who came back on a team friendly, four-year, $28 million deal.

The Clippers are absolutely loaded from roster spots 1-10.  They’ll likely start Beverley-Harkless-Leonard-George-Zubac, and bring Shamet, Harrell and Williams off the bench for spurts throughout games.  I’d be all in favor of them closing with Beverley-Williams-Leonard-George-Harrell, but that leaves Shamet and his shot on the bench.  The Clippers might actually have a dilemma when it comes to their crunch-time lineup.  Imagine that being your biggest issue.

So yeah, that is definitely worth the insane amount of assets they gave up.  Trading SGA, the guy you thought was going to be your future, hurts.  But with this deal, you get two guys who are already everything you want SGA to become.

The picks have their pros and cons.  For the next four seasons after next (No 2020 pick is in this deal), you know those picks are going to be in the 25-30 range.  The only one that has significant value is the 2022 pick, which is slated to now be the double draft year instead of 2021, where the Miami pick that has been all around the league, is.  That Miami pick made its rounds across the NBA with good reason; Miami was supposed to be rebuilding by then, and there was a chance that was the double draft.  Now the double draft is the year after, and the Heat have at least Jimmy Butler (And possibly Russell Westbrook) on that season’s team.

Starting in 2024 is when dealing the picks gets risky.  The Clippers sent three of them, their own 2024 unprotected pick, a pick swap in 2025 and their own 2026 unprotected pick.  That’s three really risky picks.  Why? By then, I’m going to be 25, Kawhi and Paul George’s contracts will be up, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson will be two of the five best players in the league, LeBron will likely be retired (Who knows really, though) and the No.1 overall pick in that draft is about to enter middle school.  The point is, that is a really, really long time away.  And who knows what anything is going to be like by then.  The Clippers will likely be in a different era, maybe a rebuilding one by then.  Not having those picks would be debilitating.

Then again, winning 2-3 titles and then having to go through that would ease the pain a bit.

From Oklahoma City’s side of the deal, it’s a bit of a kick in the balls. But it might have been a good, necessary one. This deal, and offseason overall, shows a positive progression of thought from the Thunder’s front office: that winning anything significant with Russell Westbrook in a primary, ball-dominant role is not possible.

Trading George and not Westbrook is a tough swallow. George was traded to OKC in a hail mary deal that ended up as one of the best, most fair trades ever due to George’s surprising commitment to the Thunder last summer, which was only made due to his friendship to Westbrook. He was the second superstar to ever actually come to OKC and be happy and want to stay. He wasn’t forced there at all despite his trade from Indiana before the 2017-18 season, as he could have left last summer. But keeping him could have resulted in a Kawhi-in-San Antonio-or-Jimmy Butler-in-Minnesota-like situation that we saw in 2018, where a refusal to play forced the Thunder to make a deal. Even keeping him and not Westbrook puts the Thunder in a not-as-frustrating (considering finances and value) yet similar situation: a team centered around George is not winning anything significant either due to the type of player George is.

Moving either player was a step in the right direction. It seems as if they’re going to do both. It gets a good but not great team out of the middle class of the league. It allows them to reset and rebuild around that stud young guy above in SGA and an insane bevy of draft picks which likely won’t be all very valuable but are going to a team that has shown an ability to draft well. It gives them Danillo Gallanari, who plays like he’s worth the contract he’s on when he actually plays, is a veteran presence and establishes some competency to a roster that could lose it quick.

Westbrook obviously won’t net that, if anything substantial at all. George required a massive haul because it essentially forced the Thunder, a legitimately good team, to admit defeat and give up. For a small market team to have a really good, competitive team and then do this is devastating to fans and to the front office. Because the draft is a crap-shoot, and no one is voluntarily coming to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

The impending Westbrook trade is essentially one where OKC gets out of an absolutely crippling contract to take one that’s not great but is much better.  Are the Thunder desperate enough to just demand Dragic and call it a day?  That might be underrating OKC’s position; given the way they’ve held onto Russ over the years, they may not be wanting to just get rid of him, and could be looking for legitimate value back.

If I’m any team, this is a contract dump deal.  There’s no way I’m giving up anything of true value for Westbrook.  Miami’s interest to me makes zero sense.  Them handing over a contract and an asset like Justise Winslow or Bam Adebayo is a complete miscalculation of what Westbrook would bring to the table.

Despite it making all the sense in the world, it was likely a tough deal for OKC to make.  They’ve been competitive all decade and had put their core together just last summer.  Now, that core is beginning its demolition just a year after it was put together.  But the consequence of doing that is a good one, even if they don’t realize it yet.

Don’t Worry, The Warriors Are Still The Warriors

People weren’t going to stop hating the Warriors.

As long as they were competitive, as long as they kept taking and making insane amounts of three pointers, as long Stephen Curry kept being Steph and kept doing Steph things, as long as Klay Thompson doubled him up and created the best shooting duo ever and as long as Draymond Green kept being a pest, on and off-the-court, people were going to keep hating the Warriors.

That wasn’t changing if Kevin Durant left.

It could have gotten better.  That’s not happening now.

The Warriors sign-and-trade for D’Angelo Russell was the most Warriors thing ever.  It was also the most cruel, shrewd and unfair thing ever.  These guys get to have him, one of the ten best guys on the market?  Really?!?  After all they got the past five years?

I mean, it’s pretty good value for when you’re about to lose one of the three best players in the league for nothing.

The fit for Russell in Golden State is complicated, no doubt.  And they paid him a lot money, maybe a tad more than even I, someone who wanted the Suns to land him, felt comfortable paying.  But it’s a completely acceptable risk for Golden State. What do they have to lose?  More than 32 games?  Not with this roster.  Nope.

It’s going to be weird to see Russell go to a team with a player already not only playing his listed position, but taking his role as well.  Russell was the No.1 option, closer and point guard in Brooklyn.  Everything and everyone revolved around him.  In Golden State, that’s Steph Curry’s job.  And that’s not going to change.

In a way, Russell in Golden State creates almost a new Splash Brothers duo.  It moves Klay Thompson into the three spot, a position that his game represents better than the two-guard.  The backcourt of Russell and Curry somehow creates an even more explosive backcourt; Russell’s ability to create his shot off the dribble a tad better than Thompson and the passing Russell brings to the table makes the Warriors’ offense more complicated but also more potent.

It’s insane that’s even possible.

But this time, there is, and will be, some doubt.

What happens when teams play a guard and three wings?  Curry and D-Lo is a horrific defensive pairing of two small and nimble defenders.  Sure, the Warriors will still have Klay Thompson (By the way, his contract doesn’t matter, because he never leaving and was never not getting the max) and Draymond Green as two lockdown guys at the three and four spot come playoffs, but D-Lo and Curry are going to get cooked.

They should be able to score enough to make it not matter as much, but does D-Lo accept his new role as the secondary, or even third option offensively?  What if he turns into an even higher usage, inefficient player trying to fight for shots and doesn’t buy into the Golden State style of play?

Golden State could flip him, which has been rumored quite a bit, with some reporters even saying it’s going to happen rather than it being a possibility.  It seems like a stretch to go that far; Golden State isn’t going to be that big of a disaster, right?

The other thing that I think we’re forgetting about the fit: Curry doesn’t care.  Neither does Klay.  What makes both players so special is their ability to play and be effective with anybody.  Curry doesn’t need the ball; he’s the best shooter of all-time.  Klay can score 50 without dribbling.  D-Lo should, and will get freedom to be D-Lo in Golden State.  And if it really is a disaster, the Warriors can move him and get better role players to go around their core than they’ve ever had before.

What about Kevin Durant now?

D-Lo at least represents a fall-back plan for Klay’s injury, which probably keeps him out until the playoffs.  In February, the Warriors can evaluate the market based on Klay’s progress, and the team’s success, and make a decision.  But for now, it could be fair to say that Golden State hasn’t lost that much ground, if any at all.  If Kawhi ends up on the Lakers, ground is lost.  The Lakers may into the next dynasty.  If it’s the Clippers, the West is insane.  If it’s Toronto, the West is still insane, but Golden State shouldn’t be exclude from the No.1 seed conversation.

Houston is running it back again.  The Trail Blazers made good, necessary moves but will be relying on younger, less experienced players.  Utah is going for it, but I’m less high on them than others.  Denver has a chance to replicate Toronto in terms of build and roster-makeup, but with a potential key piece in Michael Porter Jr. playing his first basketball in two years next season, they could be another year away.  The Lakers without Kawhi could be playing with six legitimate dudes.  The Clippers are probably just frisky again without Kawhi.  Dallas has serious potential, but like Denver is probably one more year away.

Golden State, even without KD, even without Klay for the regular season, could be just as good.  They brought back Kevon Looney on a bargain of a contract (I honestly think he could have gotten $8 million more annually somewhere) and signed Willie Cauley-Stein, a player whose value immediately jumps thanks to the situation he’ll be playing in.  Those two give the Warriors a good defensive presence down low.  Glenn Robinson III seems irrelevant, but has been a long time “wrong situation” guy for me; the Warriors are anyone’s fix for that.

And that’s why the Warriors are hated and won’t stop being hated.  They make and fix guys into the best possible version of themselves.  They gave Andre Igoudala, the sacrificial member of the dynasty, a career revival.  They turned Draymond Green into one of the best defenders the game has seen after taking him in the second round.  They got lucky and put two of the five best shooters ever in the same backcourt, and possessed the organizational competence to add one of the best eight or so ever (That designation could also be applied to player soon, in addition to shooter) as well.  And because that guy left, they got value back that will still keep them as relevant.  None of this is unfair or should be ridiculed.  All they did was just be smart.

The Nets Don’t Have To Wait For KD To Contend

A lot that was reported about two of the three best free agents in this 2019 class was correct.

We knew Kevin Durant had interest in playing in New York.

We knew Kyrie Irving had interest in playing in New York.

And we knew the two of them had discussed playing together.

We just had the wrong team.

Despite all of the rumors (Kyrie to the Lakers, Durant maybe coming back to Golden State, Durant then teaming up with Kawhi, Durant going to the Knicks no matter what, Anthony Davis getting involved with both players), most of what we thought happened.  And on top of all of that, the one thing I thought should have happened did: they (smartly) didn’t go the Knicks.

It made sense all along.  The Knicks were a disaster in the front office and in their ownership.  They had a young core which had the wrong players being hyped up (Kevin Knox, RJ Barrett, Dennis Smith Jr.) and the right ones being shuttered (Allonzo Trier, Mitchell Robinson, Damyean Dotson).  If Kyrie and KD wanted to team up, that was cool.  But if they went to the Knicks, they’d be putting themselves in a troubling situation.

Instead they went to Brooklyn, a team with Jay-Z as its biggest fan, the NBA hipsters’ backing and a much better and more fun roster in an area that is taking off as tech and media hub.

When ‘Public Service Announcement’ by Jay came on in my car Monday morning, I got it.  KD and Kyrie in Brooklyn felt right.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Durant is going to have to wait awhile.  But when he returns in the 2020-21 season, the Nets will likely have one of the two-to-four best teams in the league, and will have a path to being the best.  Irving-Caris LeVert-Kevin Durant-Joe Harris-DeAndre Jordan/Jarrett Allen is insane.  That’s two of the seven best players in the league alongside LeVert, who, with a little bit of Durant in his game, was having one of the 20 best seasons in the league in 2018-19 before getting hurt and could easily be that again next season, and be even better the next year.  If Kawhi ends up on the Lakers, we’re looking at the Nets and the Lakers as the next installment of a Cavaliers-Warriors-like deal.

Durant’s decision to leave was a bit puzzling but also made sense.  If not for devastating injuries to two of the top 15 players in the league, the Warriors are likely three-peating.  Durant would have won three titles in three years.  Why leave that?  Why leave Golden State?  They were running it back either way.  The whole league was figuring how to stop you for three years.  No one had any success.  It’s likely no one would have found it.  You would have been the best player on a team that could have won an unprecedented amount of titles in a row.  Who would give that up?

Durant did because some things didn’t break right.  But he also did because he wanted to play with a different group of guys.  He wanted to play with his friends that he’d been wanting to play with for awhile.  Would you leave a good job to take a good job that your best friend worked at as well?

Durant also left to go play in, and bring greatness to, a city that has lacked it in the sport of basketball for so long.  It may not be the most prominent team in the city, but that could change soon. If he succeeds there, he’s the king of New York and Brooklyn.

Despite Durant not being able to contribute next season, the Nets are still in really good shape.  The Nets did in fact upgrade from D’Angelo Russell to Kyrie Irving, though some disagree with that statement (Something I’ll get into later this week)

The reason why Kemba Walker could be an upgrade over Irving has nothing to do with Kyrie himself.  It’s about the surrounding pieces and how those guys fit with Walker compared to Kyrie.

Kyrie is one of the few guys who really matter in the league.  I do believe, despite the failure in Boston, he’s a No.1 guy on a championship team.

As much as people blame Irving for Boston’s failures, there’s also a lot he couldn’t do.  The Celtics had team-wide effort issues on the defensive side of the ball, and decided to hit zero shots in the first halves of games, leaving Irving to have to bail them out at the end.  The Celtics don’t win nearly as many games as they did last season without Irving’s heroics late.

That’s why the Nets signed Kyrie over D’Angelo Russell.  Because he matters.  Is D-Lo really ever going to be one of the ten best guys in the league?  Are we sure D-Lo is going to live up to that max contract (It seemed much more likely that deal would be an overpay before he ended up in Golden State)?  When a guy like Kyrie is available, and you can easily get him, you do it.  That’s what Boston did.  It didn’t work out, but they tried.  You just do it and see what happens.

Because of what Kyrie brings to the table, and the foundation they already have, the Nets could easily be contenders next season even without KD.  We’re looking at a lineup of Kyrie-LeVert-Harris-Garrett Temple/Taurean Prince-Jarrett Allen/DeAndre Jordan.  Kyrie and LeVert is a deadly duo; both have the ability to play off one another as they can hit threes.  LeVert’s length makes him a threat off-the-ball as well.  Joe Harris is a sniper; and whoever of Temple and Prince provides shooting and defense (I assume Temple starts due to the signing and his experience).  Center is in an odd spot; the Jordan signing is easily one of the worst of the summer, but it’s clear that KD and Kyrie pulled a LeBron-like move on the Nets and said “Pay him or we ain’t coming.”  Allen did get exposed a bit in the playoffs, but Jordan isn’t exactly bringing good rim protection either.  Maybe playing with his friends will bring his effort back up.  Anyways, if Kawhi leaves the conference, the Nets automatically slide in as the No.2 seed behind Milwaukee, with Indiana, Miami, Boston and Philadelphia challenging them for it.  If Kawhi stays, it likely slides everyone back a spot.  Nonetheless, the Nets have boosted themselves into the East’s, and the league’s, top tier.  They only have up to go from there.